Nearly a decade after Phil Klay’s debut book Redeployment won the National Book Award for Fiction and the National Book Critics Circle’s John Leonard Prize, the bestselling author and Iraq War veteran returns with his first venture into nonfiction.
Uncertain Ground: Citizenship in an Age of Endless, Invisible War is a collection of essays from Klay that tackle what it means to be an American during a time in which the nation seems to be constantly mired in conflicts around the globe. Klay’s latest work addresses the complex relationships between a peaceful society and its warfighters, as well as how two decades of combat have shaped the way America views military service. Some of the collection’s strongest essays, like “The Good War” and “Duty and Pity,” are among the best things written about the GWOT and the people who fought it.
Coffee or Die Magazine sat down with the Iraq War veteran to discuss Uncertain Ground, his transition into nonfiction, and how he thinks the “forever wars” may steer the future of American foreign policy.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
COD: Tim O’Brien said about The Things They Carried, “What you do remember [of war] is the feel of it, and that is what I really wanted to communicate. […] You can tell them without having to tell the literal truth, most of which you can’t even remember.” Your first book, Redeployment, was fiction. What do you think it is about fiction that works so well when writing about war?
PK: There are a couple benefits that you have with fiction. For one, you’re telling a story that you’re asking the reader to sort of imaginatively enter, which is a fundamentally different thing than presenting them with an argument that they’re supposed to process and respond to. Some people have read my first book, Redeployment, and have read it as an anti-war book. I’ve also been told that kids have read Redeployment before joining the military. So ultimately, fiction doesn’t try and spread a message, so much as invite the reader to think very deeply about the experiences that are most important to the writer. You bring readers to the situations that are of great moral or spiritual or political concern to you, and then the reader imagines himself inside that experience and tries to formulate their own personal response.
That’s what’s kind of deeply important for me about fiction. There’s nothing new about the experience of coming home from war being one of alienation, right? This goes back to Odysseus returning to Ithaca and only being recognized by his dog. It’s not a new experience that when a soldier returns to a society that hasn’t shared the experience, there’s a disconnect. Fiction is a way people can start to try and imagine those experiences and process them on their own.
COD: Your new book, Uncertain Ground, is a collection of essays. What pushed you to write a nonfiction book about America’s endless wars?
PK: I’ve been writing both fiction and nonfiction for a long time, but the essays in Uncertain Ground address things in the public discourse about war that I think are wrong, or off-base, or under-expressed. Some of the essays are more explorations of things in my life, relating to war, that I’m still puzzled by. For example, “Tales of War and Redemption” — the story of my chaplain interacting with children in Iraq — is just something that I’ve been thinking about for a long time. An essay is a way of rigorously trying to examine my own responses to those things and then invite other people to do the same thing. It’s just a different aspect of trying to get people to actively engage with these wars, the experiences of homecoming, the pursuit of moral and spiritual questions that wars raise.
COD: Some of these essays are more than 10 years old. Have any major events (like the fall of Kabul or the war in Ukraine) changed your perspective of these “forever wars”?
PK: My perspectives have definitely evolved over time. I think readers can probably see that in Uncertain Ground. The first essay that I wrote, “Death and Memory,” is about the experience of watching a person die in the hospital and then going to New York on leave. And I think that essay in particular has more anger towards a civilian society that is less interested in war. Later, when I think about the moment in time, I realized that there was a lot more political debate about the wars than I was initially aware of. There’s a balance in terms of how we think about our responsibilities as citizens.
Veterans’ initial alienation is an understandable response, but needs to be pushed past in order to come to a healthier approach to our society. There are a lot of issues of great political importance in American life — and people’s ordinary lives — when they don’t think about war, and are still deeply important and worthy of respect. That kind of perpetual complaint from veterans against civilian culture is unhealthy.
COD: I was particularly enthralled by your essay, “The Good War,” which tackles the way we remember, or more accurately, misremember certain wars when describing moral behavior and ethics in combat. With the prevalence of cameras everywhere, do you think an increase in visibility has bridged that gap between what you call “historical memory and the lived-experience?” Do you foresee any problems in future wars coming from that new transparency?
PK: I was just discussing with a friend yesterday about the alleged videos of Ukrainian soldiers behaving coolly to dead Russians and their families. There’s an interesting document from World War II by Pvt. Frank B. Sargent, which talks about how folks need to be trained, and one of the things that he emphasizes is the importance of hate. It’s this sort of frank discussion about what the experience of being in intense combat for prolonged periods of time does to someone psychologically. There’s this sort of thing that happens where these videos come out and people are shocked. I think that it’s a good thing that they’re shocked, because how we treat the dead and how we behave in combat is extremely important — for a whole variety of reasons, including our own humanity.
I also think that we shouldn’t be naive about what prolonged periods in war can do to people. I think that we just need to be clear-eyed. I think that cell phone videos are bringing information to you immediately, but I think that a lot of times, they’re sort of spectacle which is different from understanding, right?
One of the reasons that I’m committed to the written word is because it’s forcing someone to think through these issues in a slower, more contextualized and careful way. You can bring out the intensity of an experience that often gets flattened to a sort of shocking image. There’s something really bizarre about watching these wars on a screen. There’s this kind of weird, sanitized nature to it. I support the Ukrainians and hope for their battlefield success as much as anyone, but it’s odd to see people sharing videos of successful strikes because what they’re sharing are essentially snuff films, where, in many cases, a bunch of Russian conscripts who didn’t even know they were going to be invading Ukraine are burning to death. You share one video and you’re meant to feel exultation. You share another video and you’re meant to feel horror and disgust, but with the written word you’re going for more complex emotions, where you begin understanding how those things piece together.
COD: You wrote a brilliant essay, “American Purpose After the Fall of Kabul.” In it you warn against the catastrophic destruction that can come from a nation “enraptured by the warm glow of victimization,” citing the unity in the wake of 9/11, and the two wars that followed. Do you worry how Russia’s invasion has seemingly united much of the West and how that might weaken our aversion to war?
PK: I think that anytime there’s war fever — including for a clearly just one — it is very important for there to be cooler, more skeptical heads. I think that’s the challenge that the Biden administration is trying to work out right now. I know a couple of the veterans who’ve gone overseas to help with training Ukrainians. For them, there’s a very clear and moral purpose. Anytime something becomes the cause of the moment there’s this sort of brain dead contrarianism that people look down upon, like they mock whoever is supporting Ukraine, because supporting Ukraine is the current “thing,” but sophisticated contempt is far stupider than heartlessly retweeting Ukrainian propaganda. It’s important to keep your head — especially when you’re talking about the taking of human life on an industrial scale.
COD: Does Uncertain Ground have a target audience? Did you write it for the military, civilians, or both? And what do you hope readers will take away from your first nonfiction book?
PK: I always try and write things that would appeal to both military and civilian leaders, and that hopefully can serve as a basis for conversation between those two groups. One thing I hope they take away is that they need to take war-making seriously — it’s one of our responsibilities as American citizens.
Uncertain Ground: Citizenship in an Age of Endless War by Phil Klay, Penguin Press/Random House, 272 pages, $27.